Captain Cartwright / PC: Jackie Finlan
Northern California will be well represented at the High School Club National Invitational Tournament (NIT) this Friday-Saturday, May 17-18 in Murray, Utah, and Pleasanton makes the trip as the region’s top seed. Although NorCal did not hold a DI final due to scheduling conflicts, the Cavaliers went undefeated through league and against the top teams.
“The competition in league was just as competitive as it always is in NorCal,” Pleasanton head coach Steve Lopez said. “We defeated Land Park [28-24] in a full game, then Sacramento [33-5] and everyone else [Bishop O’Dowd, Elk Grove]. … This is one of the more talented teams we’ve had. I feel comfortable saying we’re number 1 or 2 in NorCal.”
Weather was a challenge in NorCal this year but the mid-April NorCal Invitational provided good intel into what California is bringing to the High School Club NIT this weekend. Pleasanton, which co-hosts the event, was without some key performers and opened with a heavy loss – 43-7 – to South Bay. The Cavaliers limped out of that match with some injuries as well.
“South Bay was our toughest game,” Lopez reviewed the season’s worth of opposition. “We weren’t mentally right for that game. We were coming off of several weeks of back-to-back games and were battered and weren’t ready for the physicality. That first initial quick score got us out of our game plan and we started playing a style of rugby we’re not great at. The ball stopped moving and we made mistakes. You can’t give a team like South Bay mistakes because they take advantage of them.”
But the match was a good learning moment, and the squad has good leadership to bank those lessons and grow from them. Top among them is senior All-American Gracie Cartwright, who captains the team from lock. The Quinnipiac University commit has good rugby IQ and work rate, and teammates look to her for guidance.
Seniors Kennedy Joga and Emerson Goodrich have also stepped up this season. The former is heading to Central Washington University in the fall, while the latter will join former Cavaliers Marion Sellier and Olivia Duba at Brown University. The pair do damage from center and fullback, respectively.
The team has also added some punchy talent, like first-year sophomore Nikki Lynch, a former ice hockey player and really dynamic finisher. Kai Brandt-Templeton transferred from the West End program in Virginia and brings a ton of elite experience to the flyhalf position. There’s a wealth of young players who represent optimism for future successful seasons.
“Other teams I’ve coached, it could have damaged their psyche, but this team seemed to take it in stride: We weren’t right but we’re going to be right right now,” Lopez reviewed the team’s reaction after the South Bay loss. “We ate our humble pie and now we play like we know we can play now – this is all coming from them. A lot of leadership came out of that.”
Pleasanton is focusing on playing the fast, wide game that has typified the program and better suited against larger teams – which await in Murray, Utah. The Cavaliers did not participate in last year’s NIT in Tennessee, but there is a core group of players who have that experience and attempt to prepare teammates.
“I let them – Gracie and the other senior captains – have those conversations,” Lopez said. “They talk about the level of competition and what to expect, but also what it’s like not sleeping in your own bed and being somewhere different. They talked about how to take care of yourself in the weeks leading up to it. And there will be unknowns – playing in elevation, new teams we haven’t seen before.”
When Pleasanton debuted at NITs, the single schools and clubs hadn’t split yet, and the Cavaliers won the Division II title. The trip to Utah marks the team’s fifth trip to the NITs.
“They seem pretty confident and relaxed. It’s AP testing time so that’s stressing them out more than rugby,” Lopez said. “When they play their best, they’re very difficult to beat. And I’ve been able to give them more rugby knowledge than I thought I would be able to because they picked it up so fast. They’re really fun to coach and be around. We’re hoping for a good show.”
Lopez is one of several coaches who populate the NIT organizing committee and also bring teams to the event itself. Both NITs (the single schools play in Glendale, Colo., this year) do not feature any east coast teams.
“I would love to see east coast teams there. It adds to the event and puts different styles of rugby on display. And it’s an opportunity for girls to meet other players from across the country,” Lopez said. “I would have loved to see more East and Midwest teams; but with that said, I am not disappointed in the field. There is a lot of talent 1-8 and this may be the most competitive field ever.”
TRB will be on hand for the High School NIT.